Thursday, June 19, 2014

Stewardship Lessons from Zambia

A first glimpse into the neighborhoods near Lusaka, Zambia, the real beauty of the compounds goes unnoticed by my American eyes. The signs and smells of apparent poverty consume the senses. Careful to not assume or judge, I wanted to understand how – in this challenging setting – a person understands the concept of stewardship of God’s abundance.  My initial impressions of this neighborhood were false. This was not a place of limited resources and people who were both poor in spirit and lacking daily sustenance. 

My wondering mind tried to project; how does a person living in Kanyama view the scriptures that address first fruits for God? My American lens saw shortfall and great need. My American heart wondered how I would view my creator God if I spent every day in the compound of Kanyama. Getting out of the bus with fellow muzungu (white people) raised many more questions and reactions: “Why this experience, Lord?” “What do you have for me to learn today?” 

Time and reflection provided the refraction needed to consider these questions. 

Reading from the book of Hebrews during this trip provided some insight. In Heb. 10 we have insight; we are made holy, not by our sacrifices and offerings but through the body of Jesus on the cross.   John Calvin’s commentary describes “right stewardship” as that which is tested by the rule of love.  Check out 1 Sam 15: 22; the Lord delights in our obedient hearts. 

Repeated trips into Kanyama - with corrective lenses - revealed a culture that places people above time and tasks. Hospitality reigns in these homes.   Careful observation reveals children playing with sticks and old hubcaps, street vendors creatively displaying their crafts and colorful vegetables, and teachers who share their time and resources with their students and offer their wisdom and time to families who needed encouragement.  A community spirit thrives in Kanyama. Loving your neighbor, even the muzungus who dropped in now and then, seems a better understanding of stewardship and the rule of love described in Hebrews. 

The material riches of the people of Kanyama are shared in community to support family and neighbors alike. Enough for each day – enough for each child and neighbor – comes in ways not that unusual or surprising when the American “scales” fall off.

Stewardship lessons – whether in Zambia, Israel or America – are available to the awakening heart.
Stewardship is richer by far in the context of possessing a heart for God, His people, and gratefulness for God’s saving grace. Abundance is not found in resources alone, but in God’s unconditional love. Eyes to see God in others and hope in difficult settings; these contribute to a deeper understanding of stewardship.  

In gratefulness for my new friends in Zambia. Your hospitality and resourcefulness are a testimony of God’s love.  

Friday, April 11, 2014

Cousins

 Here we are again—nearing the end of tax season. For many people, these final days leading up to submitting taxes is full of angst. We look over our income and investments, consider our charitable contributions and check tax records to make sure we are getting all our possible deductions. 

Tax season raises many questions for me. Did I give enough to charity this year? Is 10% of gross or net the real goal? Should I lower my standard of living and give the rest to non-profits who have real impact? Am I grateful for what taxes provide for me? Do I trust the system that operates all around me for how taxes are distributed? Are my elected officials using common sense?

For me so many questions do not have clear answers. At what point do I trust first and expect that common sense follows closely behind?

Are trust and common sense distant cousins, much like taxes and philanthropy? Is asking the right questions, at least during tax season, an opportunity to find the new normal for acknowledging God's abundance to me and thinking through best practices for supporting charities?

We know God clearly created humankind with hearts of compassion and minds for critical thinking. We are obligated by obedience to God to resolve these questions, as part of the process of God's sanctifying work in me and the world.


Tax season is complicated far beyond the question of “How much do I owe this year?” Let's continue talking, researching, voting appropriately and keeping stewardship a top value in our lives.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The situations around us—and what really matters

Circumstance. 

At first glance, it is a bit of an odd word—until you consider its etymology. First, take “stance,” meaning sense of position or place of feet. “Stance” points us, ultimately, to our situation. When combined with the prefix “circum,” we see how the full word refers to our “surrounding” situation.

As I gain a healthier biblical perspective about God's abundance to me, I've needed to make the transition from looking with judgment at other people’s situations to honestly looking at my own situation before God. I need to be on guard of the way my sinful nature has a tendency to look at other's circumstances and make a judgment call.

When comparing God's abundance to me verses those who appear to have so much more than me, my stance becomes jealous and creates an attitude I'm not proud of. Quite the opposite happens when I look at the circumstances of others who experience much less privilege than I do. Now I feel blessed—almost prideful—
and satisfied with my circumstances. My stance becomes a bit more entitled.  

Both stances are out of line with biblical mandate. God knows my heart, and He desires that I consider my stance before Him alone. My sacrifice of resources should not be about obligation or entitlement, but rather my heartfelt response of obedience and worship.

My circumstances, and yours, don't matter as much as the fact that God knows our hearts and He desires that we offer who we are and what we have fully to him. Furthermore, let’s remember that God's abundance flows to all, though circumstances vary greatly. 

My hope is that today we recognize that everything belongs to the Lord and gratefully manage His resources for the good of His kingdom.    



Thursday, January 16, 2014

Trust God, not the familiar


My frequent travels to LA, the metropolis of Houston or the Canadian countryside are made possible with the aid of Google Maps and the “show traffic” option. Finding my way around traffic or through shortcuts is made so much easier with vehicles that have GPS installed. I have become dependent on these assistive devices in unfamiliar situations as well as familiar.

I am confident I can get around any obstacle that may come my way: accident, traffic jam or construction zone. Trusting the familiar takes over most of my daily decisions and activities, not just my driving. I often rely on my personal knowledge and experience, rather than God’s leading.

We have a desire and resolve to trust God for all things, which we often exercise in times of new experiences. But learning to rely on Him in situations that are familiar is often our biggest challenge.

Recently our household revisited our plan for financial stewardship for 2014. We fell into our familiar pattern of looking over our past support and talking through increases or changes. It took some additional, intentional conversation to consider how we would trust God for the unknowns along the way. It’s easier to apply the 10% rule and tithe to favorite organizations than it is to determine a point of impact and sacrifice in our stewardship plan, agreeing to trust God for all the unknowns that will come in 2014.

When we know the way, we behave in a familiar way. But when a new season of life or dramatic change comes to our journey, it seems more compelling—desirable even—to reassess and consider if this is an opportunity for trusting God for what’s ahead.
 

Can I be resolute for trusting God in all the familiar spaces and not just the new situations? Can I trust God’s abundance when I think I know the way already? 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Circumstances and gratitude

When he bought the house, James knew about needed repairs. He researched the repair costs, anticipated the financial demand, and knew of the time and patience it would take to restore his new home. Still, his enthusiasm around the purchase remained high; he was pleased with himself and the plans he made. And the circumstances surrounding the purchase were just as he expected.

That is, until move-in day.

Placing storage boxes in the basement revealed that, in the month since purchasing the home, the foundation cracks had grown and revealed a larger problem that couldn’t be ignored. Suddenly, gratitude for this home turned into disappointment, frustration and self-doubt.

Surprising circumstances often shake our faith foundations too. When suddenly confronted with the unexpected, we respond by diminishing our core values and commitments. Finding solutions that will return us to a place of comfort and control can take priority over trust and gratitude. Disappointment often reduces our sense of gratitude for the resources of time, energy and wealth that we enjoy daily.

Disappointment is part of my everyday life, and I imagine that is true for you too. Circumstances for all of us also change frequently. Families grow, cars need repairs, tuition increases and purchases can’t wait. The question is; what gives? When car repairs demand more of the tight budget, we grab dollars from our “first fruits” meant for church or various non-profits.

But foundational values of trust, faithfulness, obedience and stewardship are non-circumstantial. We rob ourselves of opportunities to see God’s miracles at work when we suspend our commitments in favor of doing it ourselves. Gratitude is foundational, not circumstantial.
  
I encourage you to count your blessings this Thanksgiving and to include all your circumstances in that list. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Buckets, envelopes or expense columns

Which budget management plan best describes your approach to saving, spending and gifting? I have heard others reference their household budget as if it were cash in buckets; Dave Ramsey describes the envelope system, and many others track expenses using programs like Quicken.

The tool or management style you use is less important than the perspective you have of the overall picture of earning and spending. Consider what happens to your budget when a significant change to your earnings takes place.

Whether it is a recession, a pay cut, the loss of a job, or increased expenses for childcare or tuition, how you consider the next step in a time of budget change speaks volumes about your understanding of the resources you have, where they come from, and to whom those resources belong.

In times of reduced income, we like to rationalize away our guilt for cancelled giving. We use explanations like: “I'm giving my time to church, they don't need my money and time,” or “I’m paying tuition now, that's my gift to X Christian School or Y College.”

We might even “spiritualize” our new situation by turning it over to God through the convenient belief that When God blesses me again with a return to previous income levels, I'll start giving again” or, “If this is my new situation in life, then God understands that I can't give to charity anymore.

I've done this dance as well, so I speak from a point of confession. Separating purchases from charity can get a bit cloudy at times. Paying tuition to a nonprofit can feel like giving to charity, especially when we have to sacrifice other purchases to cover the cost.  We join the leadership of our church and consider all the time it takes from family as a sacrifice; therefore we assume our gift is our time.

But God's abundance and resources to me, no matter the amount, do not come with this caveat from Him: “Only when I bless you with enough do you get to enjoy the blessings of giving from the first fruits of my gifts.”
 
So let's recommit to not holding back. Let's give from the best, not the lefts. Do we really have buckets of separation? Isn't it all God's to begin with? It is not the amount that matters—think of the widow's mite—but the obedience, worship and sacrifice that honor God. God's love for you is not directly correlated with your income. Your love for God motivates your worship, obedience and giving. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Approaching

I recently accomplished a bucket list experience and gained some new insight. My Labor Day weekend 2013 was spent in San Francisco attending to the many matters involved in a family reunion. 

The time and location for this reunion coincided with the official opening of the new Bay Bridge, a global project for which my brother played a key role as engineer and project manager. This is a significant accomplishment when one considers the urgency of replacing the current bridge that could not withstand the next major earthquake.


The decision to support my brother came a few years ago—I knew I had to celebrate this pinnacle of his career and affirm a relationship that grew out of ashes. 


Due to VIP status, the opportunity to drive across this new magnificent bridge, before it was open to the public, was the privilege of only a few. Added to this privilege was the depth of my love for this brother who graciously brought healing to what was broken between us. 


Crossing the bridge at night; led by my brother, with my certificate of permission on the dashboard, unaided by security, dodging construction vehicles, slowly traversing the magnificent, beautiful and unique structure, was an experience that parallels how I should approach my God and career. 


Approaching God daily can become mundane; almost routine—similar to picking up the phone and calling for appointments to raise support. 


With as much emotion, awe, and fresh experience as crossing the new bridge—this is how I must prepare my mind, heart and soul to approach a God who is renewing, healing, forgiving and delivering grace everyday. Can I do this? Can you do this? In our daily activities of work and play, we should pay attention to the approach we take with stillness before God, with reading the scriptures and whispering our prayers, with preparing for conversations involving our work with clients, with relationships at home and work. 


God leads, freely and openly, to a place of magnificent beauty. Join me in learning to approach God, work, and all of life appropriately.